JAMAICA, N.Y. – Midfielder Leo Fernandes enjoyed competing against the New York Cosmos so much in last year’s Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, he decided to play for them.
On Wednesday night, Fernandes helped the Cosmos set up their second New York derby in as many years with a goal, an assist and another key pass in New York’s 3-0, third-round blanking of the Jersey Express at St. John’s University’s Belson Stadium.
Forward Mads Stokkelien added a score on a late penalty kick, which was set up by the combination of Fernandes and the Cosmos debut of speedy, 17-year-old forward Haji Wright.
The result earned the North America Soccer League-leading Cosmos — who took a brief respite from their pursuit of an NASL Spring Season title — a highly anticipated fourth-round home date with Major League Soccer’s expansion, crosstown rival New York City Football Club at Hofstra University’s James M. Shuart Stadium on June 17.
Fernandes, whose MLS’ Philadelphia Union barely got by the Cosmos in the fifth round, en route to reaching the U.S. Open Cup finals last year, is eager to try to help New York go further in the same tournament a year later, in part because of his experience in ousting the Cosmos from their inaugural U.S. Open Cup last year.
“The U.S. Open Cup is really exciting,” said Fernandes, whom New York signed in the offseason. “I played in it the past two years already, with Philadelphia. Playing against the Cosmos was also a great experience. That’s what opened my eyes to [join them].”
Wasting no time in getting his new team on the scoreboard, Fernandes deftly curled a left-footed free kick from just outside the arc atop the 18-yard box, through a Jersey wall and inside the left post to give New York a 1-0 lead in the 14th minute.
Such an attempt would normally be deferred to 38-year-old, crafty, veteran midfielder Marcos Senna. But this time, Senna gave the chance to the 23-year-old Fernandes, who leads the Cosmos this spring with five combined NASL goals (three) and assists (two).
“It was in a good position for a lefty,” Fernandes said. “Marcos let me strike it, which is good. He gives me confidence. So, [I was] happy to get the goal.”
Following the lead of the team’s elder statesman, Fernandes joked, “I can’t really negotiate with Marcos. I listen to him, so he said, ‘Leo, can you strike this to the goalie side?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course,’ and I was able to hit it well.”
The next 25 minutes were largely uneventful, until Fernandes played a ball to fellow midfielder Sebastian Guenzatti, who with defender Hunter Freeman streaking up the right wing, decided to take care of things himself by dribbling into the box and squeezing a shot between a pair of Jersey defenders, before rolling a shot just under the arms of goalkeeper Matthew Turner (three saves), to double New York’s lead in the 40th minute.
“I saw that Freeman was overlapping me, so I tucked into the middle,” Guenzatti said. “Leo saw me, I received [his pass], I faked like I was going to give it to Freeman… [their defender] dove to the side and they had a big hole in the box. So I just went through it and ripped [the shot].”
Praising his teammate’s play, Fernandes added, “Seba made a great run. I was able to find him and it was a great finish by him.”
Careful not to relax with the lead against the Premier Development League Express, the Cosmos, which held a 7-1 shot edge at halftime (and 13-8 overall), did just enough defensively to preserve the shutout.
“With semi-pro teams, it’s the biggest game of the year for them, but I thought we did well to score early and they didn’t have any momentum… it was a good game for us,” Fernandes said.
Head coach Giovanni Savarese echoed his team’s solid sense of urgency against a lower-level opponent.
“These are very difficult matches because this was a good team,” he said. “For them, this was the biggest game of the year… so they’re going to be extra motivated… [our] players took [the game] with the responsibility they needed to take.”
Still, Jersey had its chances in the second half.
A pass ahead gave forward Adin Kavara an unobstructed view of the net from the right side of the box, but his shot went far wide of the left post in the 56th minute.
Another close-range shot a minute later was headed away by defender James Mulligan, which allowed goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer (three saves) to safely grab the ball out of the air.
There were a couple of other instances late in the match in which the Express applied pressure and very nearly found the back of the net. But New York’s comfortable advantage was never truly threatened.
Some cramping issues forced Guenzatti to the bench in favor of Wright, who took the field as a Cosmo for the first time in the 79th minute and immediately contributed.
“I cramped up a little,” Guenzatti said. “I’m okay (for the Cosmos’ next match).”
Tacking on a final goal, Fernandes played a perfect ball from the left wing, into the box, where Wright drew a red card on defender Sylvian N’guessan and a chance from the penalty spot for Stokkelien, who easily put a shot inside the left post to close the scoring in the 81st minute.
Looking to build on last year’s home win over the New York Red Bulls before what is expected to be another energized, raucous crowd, the Cosmos are excited to face struggling NYCFC, which sits in last place in the MLS’ Eastern Conference, with a single win in its first dozen MLS games.
“These are the games that shape soccer in the United States, and more so, in New York,” Savarese said. “We played the Red Bulls last year, now we’re playing New York City Football Club. [NYCFC] played the Red Bulls (and lost, on May 10), so now you’re getting some good derby’s in the area. I think for everyone, these are great matches.”
Confidently, Fernandes said, “I feel like it’s going to be a good matchup for us… it’s going to be an exciting game for the fans and for us… I personally can’t wait to play them. I know a couple of players that play there now. It’s going to be a great test for us and we’ll see [how] we match up.”
Savarese added, “For us, it’s a big match because we have to respect our fans. We have to make sure that we give a hundred percent for the [fans] that are going to support us. And I think it’s going to be a wonderful night.”
Noting that there’s a tenuous balance between keeping a focus on the primary goal of finishing off the Spring Season (one in which New York is undefeated with only two spring matches to play, while holding a six-point lead over its next opponent, 2014 overall regular season champion Minnesota on Saturday), the U.S. Open Cup and an historic match in Cuba, against the Cuban national team on June 2, Savarese said, “We take every game with importance. “We’re trying to make sure that we have a culture, that the guys have a winning mentality.”
Yet Savarese can’t deny the appeal of having an opportunity to make a statement against a local MLS club for a second straight year.
“We cannot go away from understanding that a derby’s a derby, and when you play derbies, there’s a different feeling,” he said. “I think it’s… going to be a huge game (against NYCFC) for the two organizations.”
That can wait for a little while, however.
“We’re focusing, starting from tonight, on Minnesota,” Savarese continued. “[We will] try to get three points and we’re going to keep on going the same way until somebody comes and says we won something (in the NASL).”
Although the Cosmos returned from a 29-year hiatus with their sixth NASL title in the first season of their reboot two years ago, Guenzatti believes the current team is the Cosmos’ best since that time.
“I think we’re the strongest team we’ve ever had in the three years of the Cosmos’ [reboot] since 2013,” he said.
And Guenzatti expects New York to add to its NASL-high championship total this season.
“We’re all looking for that, our fans, we are also, and we’ve just got to stay focused.” he said. “We’ve been doing great.”